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U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. George W. Smith, Jr., commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, discusses the current state of I MEF with I MEF Command Element Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and current personnel during the 20th anniversary OIF commemoration at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, March 20-21, 2023. The event commemorated this chapter of I MEF’s lineage and accomplishments, provided OIF veterans an opportunity to reflect on the past 20 years, and to re-connect at the home of I MEF with currently serving command element personnel.

Photo by Cpl. Dean Gurule

I MEF hosts Operation IRAQI FREEDOM 20-year anniversary commemoration

3 Apr 2023 | 1st Lt. Ana Chiu The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

Approximately 100 veterans of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and current I Marine Expeditionary Force Command Element personnel gathered to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the operation at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, March 20-21, 2023.

The ceremony began with reflections of the early morning hours of March 20, 2003. Marines and Sailors breached the obstacle belt on the Iraq-Kuwait border on the march to Baghdad to remove Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime from power. I MEF supported the initial invasion after nearly a year of planning, marking the first major Marine Air-Ground Task Force combat operation since DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM.

“When we crossed the line of departure from Kuwait on 20 March, we had roughly 81,500 people assigned to I MEF,” said then U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, I MEF commanding general. “Our [structure] was just short of 90,000, about twice the size of a normal MEF.”

 “To the most lethal Marine Air-Ground Task Force, past, present and future. I Marine Expeditionary Force.”  Lt. Col. George W. Smith, Jr., I MEF commanding general

Conway went on to become the 34th commandant of the Marine Corps in 2006. His lead planner for the operation, then Lt. Col. George W. Smith, Jr., who detailed the battle plan for the MAGTF, currently serves as the I MEF commanding general. Twenty years later, Lt. Gen. Smith, Jr., invited Conway to commemorate the anniversary as the guest of honor, surrounded by I MEF Command Element Marines who fought in OIF and some still serving today.

“From a commander to his staff, you were absolutely fantastic,” Conway said as he addressed Marines during the OIF reunion dinner. “I think it was something that we trained for our whole Marine Corps lives, and given the opportunity, you seized it... You did your jobs in fantastic fashion, and we did some things that nobody would have ever said I MEF would be capable of doing.”

The event gave past and current leaders the opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of the I MEF MAGTF during the Iraq War. What the MAGTF accomplished in Iraq was due, in large part, to its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. They emphasized how the MAGTF overcame environmental, distance, and logistical barriers to provide both ground and air support to coalition forces.

This is the structure I MEF still employs on the modern battlefield today. The MAGTF’s ability to rapidly respond to changing circumstances, integrate multiple elements into a cohesive unit, and execute a wide range of missions ensures that it will continue to play a vital role in safeguarding U.S. national security for years to come.

During the event, Lt. Gen. Smith, Jr., raised his glass and delivered a toast to those with whom he served during one of the most significant events in I MEF history – Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

“To the most lethal Marine Air-Ground Task Force, past, present and future,” said Lt. Gen. Smith, Jr., “I Marine Expeditionary Force.”